Pastor Walter Mitty arrived at the Main Café last Saturday morning before anyone else in the men’s fellowship group got there, so he had time to check out the red Valentine’s Day hearts and cupids decorating the diner’s walls.
As he looked, the lifelong bachelor found himself thinking about Susan. He had spent a year up in Manitowoc taking care of his brother Herman who was, as it turned out, dying of cancer. Herman’s wife, Susan, had to work to pay the bills and their two boys were still going to school.
He had never thought about Susan in romantic terms. She was his brother’s wife, after all, and somehow that made her off limits, even in his fantasies. But Herman had been dead for two years now, and Mitty realized not only how close he and his brother’s family had become during thE year he had lived with them, but also that now he had permission to think about Susan as being quite attractive.
Mitty’s fantasies were interrupted by seven male church members taking their places at the big oak table in the café’s overflow room, complaining about the cold weather and grumbling about the fact that the day before, Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog, had seen his shadow.
Eric Anderson didn’t waste any time launching into a five-minute diatribe about President Trump’s State of the Union speech. “He’s taking credit for the economy doing well,” Eric fumed, “but it was on the way up when Obama was in office and Trump talks like it’s all because of him.”
“There you liberals go again,” said Alice sarcastically as she filled coffee cups. “You simply don’t like him because he isn’t politically correct and tells it like it is. Did you see those Democrats during the State of the Union? Even when President Trump said he wanted to give a pathway to citizenship to two million illegal immigrants, they sat there with sour pusses and wouldn’t admit that he was compromising.”
“Alice has a point,” said Dominique, after Alice had finished taking their orders. “You have to admit that even when the President says something liberals should like, they always respond with a ‘Yeah, but.’ They just don’t like or trust him as a person. But when Southern Republicans said they didn’t like Obama, Democrats blasted them as being racist.”
Eric shot back, “That’s different, Dominique, and you as an African American should be the first one to acknowledge that it is.”
“I’m not so sure it’s all that different,” Dominique continued, “and you have to admit that although the stock market took a nosedive last week, on the whole it is doing great. I didn’t vote for Trump, as you all know, and wrote John Kasic in as a protest. But c’mon, at least give us Republicans credit for knowing something about how to stimulate the economy.”
“OK, OK,” Eric replied grudgingly, “but you also have to acknowledge that half the population in our country doesn’t own stock, and they are the very ones who swallowed his promise that they’d be better off.”
As it turned out, Alice and, at times, Dominique, were the only ones in the overflow room to say anything good about the current president. Basically, it wasn’t that they disagreed with all of his policies, which admittedly changed from day to day, but they just didn’t like the guy.
Mitty tried several times to intervene and get the two sides to see it from the other side’s point of view, but he eventually gave up trying.
On his way home, he felt a need to let off steam and stopped in at History/Herstory Bookstore to tell his friend Bernie Rolvaag what had happened. Just as he started venting, Fr. Bob Sullivan walked in and sat down.
“The problem,” said Mitty as he finished his rant, “is that those guys hate Trump’s guts, and that causes them to find a reason to discount everything he says. They just don’t trust him.”
Fr. Bob waited until he was sure his friend had finished before saying, “Walt, do you remember Anders Nygren from seminary days?”
“You mean Agape and Eros?”
“Yeah, the book we all read back in the day. Remember how Nygren argued that there are three kinds of love? Eros is the kind of love we are talking about when we say, ‘I love chocolate’ or ‘I’m attracted to you romantically.’ When you say ‘I love you’ in the eros sense of the word, you mean ‘I like you a lot.”
Mitty blushed, remembering his fantasies about his sister-in-law two hours earlier.
“Philia is the kind of love that the members of your men’s group feel for each other. Call it fellowship or team spirit.”
“I think that’s how many of us in our history book discussion group feel about each other,” said Bernie. “Like-minded people being on the same page. Great minds running in the same channels. That sort of thing.”
“And then there’s agape,” Fr. Bob concluded. “It’s like when Jesus was dying on the cross and saying, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.'”
“Are you saying,” Bernie protested, “that we need to love people we don’t like?”
“I think so.”
“But that’s humanly impossible,” Bernie pleaded.
“I think you’re right,” said Fr. Bob. “It isn’t humanly possible, but isn’t that what is needed in this country — in order to build bridges of understanding over this polarized chasm we have created?”
As Pastor Walt walked home from Bernie’s book store, it dawned on him that this year Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday were both on the same day. And he wondered, “How in the world do you observe both at the same time?”
He didn’t have the answer. But he had a suspicion that hearing the words “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” would help him say “I love you” better.